From the good to the mad to the lonely. And why shouldn’t our hero be lonely? He’s the last man in a world full of zombies. At least, that’s what he thinks…
The sixties and seventies were a funny time in Hollywood. The studios were in transition, and since they were no longer allowed to own theaters or make independent theaters block-book certain features and shorts, their traditional sources of money were cut off. This naturally paved the way for less traditional movie-makers to have more of a voice, and some very out-of-the-box offerings of varying quality resulted. One of the sorta better such movies was 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price.
The film opens with shots of silent, empty, abandoned city streets. It’s almost like Chernobyl, only less overgrown and with a few bodies lying on the pavement as well. There aren’t even any birds flying around. Then there’s Robert Morgan waking up in his messy bedroom, and peering at the sunlight through the wooden slats that cover his windows. The room looks as if it has been abandoned, except that there are cords hanging from the ceiling. Groggily, Robert sits up and begins to make his rounds. Mark the calendar, which is drawn on the wall in black paint. 1966. 1967. 1968. Get coffee, put out a call on the ham radio. Go outside. Check the string of garlic hanging on the front door, then throw it away because it isn’t smelly enough. Adjust the mirror hanging behind it. Check the generator in the garage. Kick aside a couple of bodies before laying them in the back of the station wagon. Just a typical day.
Robert drives to a gas tanker to refuel, and then he takes the two bodies from before to a large pit that the movie doesn’t show the bottom of and dumps them into it, throwing gasoline and a lit torch in after them. Robert impassively stares at the pit before getting back into his car and driving away. Next is a stop at a supermarket, where he has his pick of what’s on the shelves, which is everything. He goes to the back and takes a few handfuls of garlic heads, thinking he must make it last. He doesn’t even notice the bodies lying in the entryway. He has to get home and make a new string of garlic so he can hang it on the door before the sun sets. After that, there’s nothing to do but bolt the doors and hunker down for the night.
What happens when the sun sets? Why, visitors turn up, of course. Lurching, lumbering visitors who break things and yell at Robert to come out so they can kill him. The film calls these visitors vampires, and they have some of the characteristics of vampires (they don’t like garlic or mirrors and can’t stay out in daylight), but let’s face it: They’re zombies.
Robert doesn’t budge when they come calling. While these creatures lurk around his house, Robert calmly stays inside, making wooden stakes on a lathe so that he can kill any zombie he meets, if by chance he’s caught outside. Which does happen occasionally. One night, Robert gets back a little too late, so the zombies smash his car, but fortunately he has an entire dealer showroom full of bright, shiny vehicles at his disposal. It’s a miracle they still drive perfectly even though they’ve been sitting for three years.
Some nights, Robert continues to call in vain on his ham radio. Or he might put records on. Other nights, he plays home movies of his late wife and daughter and laughs until he cries. He can’t help being haunted by memories: Robert was, at one time, a happy man with a beautiful house, a beautiful wife, Virginia (Emma Danieli), and a good job as a scientist in the Mercer Institute of Chemical Research. Robert and Virginia’s daughter, Kathy (Christi Courtland), is having a birthday, but while the kids are laughing and playing, the adults are worried. Robert’s good friend from work, Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), comes over, and he talks with Robert and Virginia about a mysterious plague that’s starting to crop up, and no one knows what it is or what to do about it.
Since it’s airborne, it doesn’t take long for the disease to become widespread, and military trucks are always coming by to take the bodies away. People who have the disease are tired during the day, they gulp and wheeze when they breathe, they can’t stand sunlight, and the final stage before their apparent death is losing their sight. Kathy is already infected, in spite of the mosquito netting over her bed, and Virginia is sick as well, although she tries to hide it from Robert.
At the lab, the scientists are working frantically to find a vaccine and a cure for the plague, and Robert shows Dr. Mercer that the bacteria in the sample are feeding off each other, even on the slide. Ben tells Robert what he’s heard about the supposed dead coming back, and he thinks the disease is turning people into vampires (zombies). Robert scoffs at the idea, and they get back to looking for a vaccine. As the days go by, though, the lab becomes emptier and emptier, leaving only Robert and Dr. Mercer. Ben himself has gotten sick, and he becomes one of the zombies prowling around Robert’s house.
Kathy eventually dies, and Robert is heartbroken when her body is taken to the pit where the other bodies are being burned. One of the soldiers helping with the transport sympathizes: “My daughter is in there, too.” Robert goes home, and it isn’t long before his wife dies as well. He can’t bear to see a government truck come and take her, so he resolves to bury her himself. It seems to be all right until one night when she comes back to find Robert. Poor guy.
One day at last, Robert finally spots a sign of life: a scruffy little black dog. It’s wounded, so he brings it home and bandages it up, thinking he’s got a new friend. Unfortunately, the dog is infected with the plague, and soon Robert is alone again. However, this is where the tide turns–maybe the plague didn’t wipe out the human race. Or did it?
The Last Man On Earth was based on a novel by Richard Matheson entitled, I Am Legend (Yes, it was later remade with Will Smith, and before that, with Charlton Heston in The Omega Man). The film was produced by American International Pictures, the same folks that later brought us the infamous Frankie and Annette movies. Like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, Man was filmed in Italy, with mostly Italian actors whose lines were later dubbed in English. It’s not super-obvious that the dialogue was rerecorded, but it does show.
The film isn’t nearly as scary as some of the other movies Price made with American International–horror aficionados may find themselves going anywhere between eye rolls, chuckles and outright guffaws. Mixing up zombies and vampires? Really? Dracula is a pretty notorious character, so it’s odd that the filmmakers fumbled the vampire thing this badly. The film is also fairly dated, especially the music, and the dubbed acting sounds forced, but that seems to be typical among spaghetti films. Even Price sounds lethargic, and since he doesn’t talk to anyone for roughly three-quarters of the movie, except in the flashbacks, it sometimes makes the film feel as if it’s plodding along and getting nowhere. One-person shows need oomph, and that doesn’t really happen here. That’s not to say the film is all bad, though. It’s an interesting idea, and there’s enough appeal to keep it as absorbing as only a mediocre, dated movie can be.
Sorry for the fuzzy screencaps–my copy of this movie is one of those lovely bargain bin public domain finds. Anyway, that’ll do it for my Day Three of the Movie Scientist Blogathon. For more science-y goodness, please see Christina and Ruth. Thanks muchly for hosting, ladies–it was fun! Hope we can do this again sometime. 🙂
Thanks for reading, everyone, and check back here on Friday for my review of 1926’s Moana!
The Last Man on Earth is available on DVD from Amazon.